Medically Reviewed by John S. Richey, MD
The gallbladder, despite its small size is a significant, though not essential, organ in your body. Just what does it do and why?
“The gallbladder is actually a sac that holds and stores bile, which is produced by the liver and helps us digests fats in our food,” says McLeod General Surgeon Dr. John Richey. “So, the bile is important for absorbing fats and vitamins that our body needs to thrive.”
“Gallstones form when the bile gets thick and stays in the gallbladder a bit longer than normal,” says Dr. Richey. “Or a person’s body makes bile a little thicker and, when it gets thick, it creates little crystals. The result is similar to a glass of saltwater evaporating over time; you’ll see the salt crystals form. That’s how gallstones form. They precipitate out and form stones.”
“The gallstones become troublemakers when they block the exit for bile to flow from the gallbladder. They block the little tube for draining bile, causing the gallbladder to get distended, spasm and cause a lot of pain,” explains Dr. Richey. “A classic sign of gallstones happens when a person eats fried chicken and mac n’ cheese. Then, the right side of their upper belly hurts for a time period of 10-minutes to several hours. Usually it is a dull pain right in the middle of the upper belly or off to the right. Other times, it goes around to the back to the tip of your shoulder blade.”
“Every time the symptoms and pain occur, more scar tissue develops around the gallbladder,” observes Dr. Richey. “ The scars make the surgery to remove the gallbladder more difficult. My recommendation is as soon as you notice you’re experiencing these symptoms, have your gallbladder evaluated to see if it needs to be removed.”
“When gallstones cause problems, the only totally effective treatment at this time is surgery,” explains Dr. Richey. “We have lasers and shock wave therapy that can pulverize the gallstones. But if you pulverize them, they turn into a sand-like consistency. The result is like making a sandcastle. When you add a little water to the sand, it sticks together. Then, it becomes even more of a problem by blocking the duct, the drainage part of the gallbladder, even more severely. So, we just don’t have a good way to treat these gallstones aside from removing the gallbladder and the gallstones entirely.”
“You’ll typically have three or four small incisions,” says Dr. Richey. “With a straightforward gallbladder surgery, the pain should improve gradually over the next few days. I have patients, who don’t have to lift anything significant or engage in physical activity at work, and can be back at their desks in four or five days. If you have a strenuous job, it might take a couple of weeks to return to work.”